Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Black Ice (2015)

By Val James with John Gallagher

Buffalo Sabres' fans were used to having a black man on their favorite team in the early 1980s. Tony McKegney had broken into the NHL during the 1978-79 season, and he was still around in the 1981-82 campaign when he received some company.

When Val James came up from the minor leagues to make his NHL debut in 1982, he was something of a curiosity. Coach and general manager Scotty Bowman thought the Sabres needed some toughness, and James certainly could supply that. James played in seven regular season games and three playoff contests - not seeing much ice time along the way - and that was it as a Sabre.

However, Game One was a milestone of sorts. James became the first African-American to reach the NHL. That makes him a pioneer of sorts, and is something of a starting point for a book on his life in hockey, "Black Ice."

And speaking of starting points ... the very first part of James' book is the most compelling. He had just completed playing for the Sabres in a game in the Boston Garden against the Bruins. Afterwards, the Sabres' team bus was surrounded by a mob that broke the front windshield and chanted a racial slur. I'd never heard that story before, and I was covering the team at the time for a radio station. By the way, it's interesting that teammate McKegney didn't come up there or in any other part of the book. 

From there, the book is a straight-forward recap of James' hockey career. It's an unusual story. His parents moved from the South to Long Island in search of a better life. James' father eventually became a rink manager in Commack, where a minor league team played. Thus James had a connection to such personalities as John Brophy and John Muckler. James picked up the game pretty quickly, and his great size and condition quickly gave him a reputation in hockey circles as a physical force to consider at all times. As a youngster he played in a league that was spread out around the New York City metro area.

It was on to Canada and a shot for James to improve his hockey skills at a teenager. He was good enough to be selected by Detroit in the 16th round of the NHL draft in 1977. That allowed him to meet current Sabre coach Ted Nolan (another Red Wings draft choice) at training camp, but he was quickly cut. James bounced from senior hockey to a pro team in Erie, where Nick Polano used him as a security blanket for Erie in the Eastern Hockey League. In a league full of tough guys, James was as tough as anyone, and he played a role in helping Erie win three straight championships.

When Polano jumped to the Sabres, James came along to the Sabres' organization. The rugged forward spent four years in Rochester in addition to his cup of coffee in Buffalo. Then it was on to the Toronto organization, and four more games in the NHL with the Leafs, before retiring in 1988. As you can see, this is not the places for pages and pages of memories about NHL experiences.

The key point of the book centers on his treatment as a black player in a virtually all-white world of hockey. It wasn't too pleasant at times. Teammates told James to simply ignore such ignorant talk, but that's easier said than done. Opposing players sometimes offered slurs, and James "rewarded" them with a good-sized beating the first chance he got. Payback was more difficult with opposing fans, though. Heading into the stands in search of justice can get a player into trouble with the law as well as the league office.

While those sorts of stories are sad but interesting, the rest of the book won't be of much interest to most readers. He recounts fights and games from minor league games from 30 years ago, and it's difficult to make those gripping. For what it's worth, some of the material in the book is definitely R-rated. The book contains a brief reference to James' wife and a short, vague description about his current job, but otherwise this could have been written in 1990.

Most hockey enforcers generally are honorable people, who make the conscious decision to get punched in the head for living. James certainly comes across that way here, and as a good guy. It seems like his life would have made a good magazine story, but there probably aren't enough interesting details to stretch it into a book. "Black Ice," then, probably will only be of interest to those with a connection to James' career ... which doesn't cover a great many people.

Two stars

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